The United Kingdom is generally known for its relatively moderate temperatures, including cool summers and winters that are generally mild. This week, though, the British Isles are undergoing the most intense heat wave on record, with temperatures at Heathrow Airport hitting 104 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday.
There is no other way to explain this development than human-made climate change bringing the heat to what were once temperate areas of the planet. There will soon be few countries left untouched, no region of the Earth that can’t expect punishing heat during its summer months. The only question left is whether such widespread consequences of a changing climate will finally spark the will to mitigate what’s likely to become an even more dire situation.
While Tuesday was the first time in recorded history that the U.K. hit 40 Celsius, or 104 F, it most likely won’t be the last. According to The Washington Post, some climate change models show that that temperature “could happen once every 15 years by 2100 if countries meet their carbon emission promises — or once every three or four years if they continue to emit as much pollution as they do today.”
Monday’s temperatures in Britain were also high, and the night into Tuesday offered little relief from the sweltering heat as the temperature stayed above 77 F in some places long after sunset. Climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis noted in a Twitter thread something that has stuck with me over the last year: While extremely hot days are dangerous, nights that refuse to cool down can be a hazard of their own.
“The thick stone walls that are all over Paris absorb heat during the day keeping the inside cool, and shed the heat at night into the atmosphere,” Pierre-Louis wrote. During a deadly heat wave in 2003, she wrote, “that didn't happen because the nights didn't substantially cool. The homes became ovens.” An estimated 15,000 people died from the heat in France that summer.
While not as deadly, things aren’t exactly going well in France today. Massive wildfires rage in the country’s southwest in a rolling catastrophe that has become frighteningly common in the American West. Major portions of the Iberian Peninsula are on fire, too, as temperatures in Spain and Portugal approach record levels, and more than 1,000 heat-linked deaths have been reported. All across Europe, the extreme weather is threatening food supplies after the continent’s farms “weathered frosts, hail and drought in the first half of the year.”
It's scary to think that this sort of climate-driven calamity could become the new normal. As the peaks rise, the average temperature will rise along with it, along with complacency, until the public equates such hot weather to a “dog bites man” story. In fact, it honestly feels as though we’ve already complacently accepted these weather changes as a new normal.
That said, this week's conditions make a blithe acceptance of our collective fate feel at least slightly less likely. For years now, places such as India have had to struggle with not just rising high temperatures but the “wet bulb effect” that comes when the climbing mercury is met with oppressive humidity. In Iraq and the rest of western Asia, the summer heat has become life-threatening to those who venture outside. But now, the pressure is being felt more frequently in majority white Western European countries.
The problem has firmly arrived on Europe’s doorstep and there’s no pretending that climate change isn’t to blame. In the medium term, the priority has to be weaning humanity off of the fossil fuels that continue to make matters worse. But there’s a big obstacle in the short term: European politicians feeling pressured to respond to the price of fuel going up, thanks to inflation and the war in Ukraine, and pressured to respond to the demand for air-conditioning to stave off the worst of the heat. As a result, we may actually see more emissions in the near future as European countries increase the amount of coal being burned amid a plodding shift to renewables.
The same is playing out in the United States, where, thanks to one man, much needed climate change legislation won’t pass the Senate before August, if at all. But with each passing year, it’s becoming harder and harder for the wealthy nations of the world to ignore what’s happening or why it’s happening. The heat will only grow more unbearable, food will only become scarcer, and modern society less able to continue on as it has.
There is no more time left, no more pretending that the transformation of our ecosystem will spare the rich and powerful. Europe is on fire, the U.S. is on fire, and only they have the means to put out the flames.